...Views from mid-Atlantic
31 July 2004

The president of the Cuban parliament has suggested that the UN, the Carter Centre and the OAS should send observers to keep the upcoming Presidential election in the US honest. "The US system is diabolical," Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada told the Cuban Government's newspaper, Granma. "It is designed precisely to make it very difficult to exercise the right to be registered. It is impossible to know who is included, who is not included. It's going to be four years since the last election and the issue of those on the lists and that whole maneuver by Bush is still being discussed... He is already preparing the conditions for the next fraud."

This Tech Central Station article by columnist Patrick Cox quotes U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Danforth on the significance of the UN's International Court of Justice ruling on the Israeli barrier. "The Court opinion, which this resolution would accept," says Danforth, "seems to say that the right of a State to defend itself exists only when it is attacked by another state, and that the right of self-defense does not exist against non-state actors. It does not exist when terrorists hijack planes and fly them into buildings, or bomb train stations, or bomb bus stops, or put poison gas into subways. I would suggest that if this were the meaning of Article 51, then the United Nations Charter could be irrelevant in a time when the major threats to peace are not from states, but from terrorists."

Where did the money Osama bin Laden used for the 9/11 attack come from? Could it have been from Saddam Hussein's Oil-for-Food programme? Claudia Rosett, whose coverage of the United Nations scandal has been oustanding, thinks that pair of villains had both motive and opportunity to use Saddam's ill-gotten gains in that way.

"In 1996, Sudan kicked out bin Laden. He went to Afghanistan, arriving there pretty much bankrupt, according to the 9/11 Commission report. His family inheritance was gone, his allowance had been cut off, and Sudan had confiscated his local assets. Yet, just two years later, bin Laden was back on his feet, feeling strong enough to issue a public declaration of war on America. In February 1998, in a London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, he published his infamous fatwa exhorting Muslims to 'kill the Americans and plunder their money.' Six months later, in August 1998, al Qaeda finally went ahead with its long-planned bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden was back in the saddle, and over the next three years he shaped al Qaeda into the global monster that finally struck on American soil. His total costs, by the estimates of the 9/11 Commission report, ran to tens of millions of dollars. Even for a terrorist beloved of extremist donors, that's a pretty good chunk of change."

One of Zimbabwe's oldest schools will have to turn away 1,000 pupils after President Robert Mugabe's draconian limits on fees forced it into liquidation yesterday. The education minister told parents at St George's College in Harare that they would suffer the fate of white farmers. "We will do to them what we did to white farmers," he said. "We are dealing with racist schools. They are all former white schools, all racist." In fact, private schools admitted black pupils even during the Rhodesian era. Black children are the great majority in the classrooms of virtually all of them.

People are just too polite for their own good, these days. This sculptural tribute to Winston Churchill is described as a striking, modern tribute to the greatest Briton of all time. Instead, it looks like something provided for children to play on in a schoolyard. And no wonder. The sculptor says his inspiration was the verse-like form of Churchill's speeches - which is about as footling as taking inspiration for a tribute to Nelson's life from the shape of the letter N.

30 July 2004

Coalition Forces in Iraq are denying reports that the senior al Qaeda terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was captured during a joint operation by coalition forces and Iraqi police. The reports seem to have begun in Kuwait, but have been used now around the world. They quote a senior Iraqi police official as having said that the US and Iraqi investigators are trying to identify the captive, who was seized at the border of Iraq and Syria, and has sent his DNA sample for testing. It would be very welcome news indeed, if it were true.

Britain's Customs and Excise department is investigating a British link to the multimillion-pound corruption scandal of Iraq's oil-for-food programme operated during Saddam Hussein's regime. "Money," says the Independent, "was allegedly siphoned off from the scheme to fund pressure groups which fought international sanctions against Saddam's regime. The campaigns were backed by MPs, including George Galloway, the independent MP for Glasgow Kelvin, who was expelled by the Labour Party.

"The Customs investigation was disclosed by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, in written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said: 'I can confirm that the Government has been given copies of documents relating to the corruption allegations, and that these name a small number of UK individuals and entities.' He assured MPs that the 'entities' named in the documents, which emerged in Baghdad after last year's war, were not linked to the British government. The individuals are understood to be three Middle East businessmen living in Britain. Two gave money to the Mariam Appeal run by Mr Galloway. A third ran an anti-sanctions campaign. The three are alleged to have sold oil rights at a profit."

If Howell Raines wasn't paid by the Democratic Party for this unclothed and brazen piece of puffery published in the Los Angeles Times today, he should have been. It was headlined Beginning to Believe Again, and this paragraph is about typical of his analysis: "Amid the fun of the futures competition, there are vibes from Boston that this battered party is beginning to believe, somewhat to its own surprise, that the future is now. Kerry is lanky and lantern-jawed, but in the right light he's also Lincolnesque. And there's no question that he's lucky, having been well born and well educated and having had a good war in Vietnam. Indeed, in respect to political luck, he may turn out to be more like George H.W. Bush than George W. Bush. Like Bush pere, Kerry has film footage of himself in a combat zone. The current President Bush, by contrast, still can't prove he went to all the required meetings of his gold-plated Air National Guard units."

This piece, also from the LA Times, is worth ten times the Raines effort.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's Opposition Leader, came close to being found guilty of treason yesterday...but two courageous civilian assessors have insisted that the judge confer with them before announcing a verdict, as the law demands. If that sounds a little odd, consider this: once, Zimbabwe's judiciary once enjoyed a worldwide reputation as the most independent in Africa. But the handling of the Tsvangirai trial has appalled many lawyers, who believe that Zimbabwe's legal system has been compromised. "Every one of us is frightened to talk out and be identified about this case and many others," said a partner in a large legal firm. We're complicit because we continue to practise as if there was a respectable legal system when it is a charade."

A week ago, the New York Times finally came to the conclusion that Yasser Arafat was more of a liability to the Palestinian cause than anything else, and said so in an editorial. This morning, Yoel Marcus of Haaretz, shows us how to applaud wryly.

The British Home Secretary is expected to announce new measures today to tackle what he calls the "internal terrorism" of animal rights activists. He is also debating whether to allow the American animal rights activist Dr Jerry Vlasak into the country after it was reported that he had said that killing five to 15 vivisectors could save millions of non-human lives. Peter Singer, an author and professor of bioethics at Princeton University, argues that those prepared to use violence in the name of their cause are damaging a legitimate cause. But animal activists have in Britain have done so much damage recently that even the Guardian, in an editorial, recently likened them to al-Qaida terrorists.

Drug companies, like Pfizer, are arguing that the violent activists are restricting their ability to attract investment to the UK, despite the high quality of research carried out there. Pfizer has added its voice to the industry's concern about animal rights extremism.

Against that background, I'm still not quite sure whether this story, detailing the activities of the Lobster Liberation Front on the Dorset coast, can be taken seriously. Having done some very considerable damage to one poor lobster fisherman's boat, the self-styled "buccaneers" of the LLF have apparently warned: "The war against the lobster industry has begun. We will attack at any time. Pots will be smashed, boats sunk and sea-life liberated. No animal should be sacrificed for human greed, let alone boiled alive." What are we to think? Some brands of evil move quickly past banality into self-parody and comedy? Seems more likely that some bright spark's channeling Joseph Heller.

Mainstream US media have begun to take notice of the incident at the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls in which a Chinese tourist was beated by a US Customs and Border Control Officer. The Christian Science Monitor quotes this morning from the same Chinese People's Daily coverage that attracted Pondblog's attention yesterday.

Today, the People's Daily is quoting a US State Department apology for the incident. The Customs Officer responsible, the newspaper says, has been charged by US authorities with assault.

29 July 2004

So far, this story has had much more coverage in South Africa than in the United States, but I think that will change before long. The gist of it is that US Federal authorities are investigating a South African woman whom they say tried to board a flight near the US-Mexico border with an altered passport. Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, 48, was arrested July 19 at the McAllen airport and charged four days later with illegal entry into the United States, falsifying information and falsifying a passport. She was denied bail yesterday by a federal magistrate. Apparently as a result of her arrest, South African officials have acknowledged that al-Qaeda militants and other terrorists travelling in Europe have obtained South African passports.

This more recent update in The Star suggests that "crooked officials in South Africa's Department of Home Affairs were selling illegal passports, and that some had fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda militants and other terrorists.

Even the bin Laden family are complaining about the distortions of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which has to tell you something.

Sir John Taverner's The Protecting Veil, a haunting concerto for solo cello and strings, has become one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time. Along with his Song for Athene, which was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, it is probably the work for which he is best known. In this Telegraph interview, he talks about the source of his music's inspiration: "Increasingly, I understand Blake who referred to the 'Jesus imagination',' he says. 'The imagination is a divine thing and is not capable, in its true, pure sense, of having a profane idea. These ideas that come like that put me in a state of semi-ecstasy and leave me feeling revitalised.

"'There is no way I can forget them because they seem to emerge from deep down in the subconscious. I can't get an idea out of my head because it's part of me, in a way. Sometimes I have the sensation that I've known it already. Like deja vu. Not that it was another piece of music, but that one has known it before. I think Yeats experienced something similar in writing poetry.'"

This story about a Chinese tourist who was beaten up by US Customs and Border Protection Officers in Niagara Falls last week has received little coverage in the US. By contrast, it is getting more and more coverage in China, where People's Daily used it as the third most prominent story on its front page this morning.

Where is Trafalgar? When visitors to the Royal Naval Museum's Trafalgar Experience in Portsmouth are confronted with this question in a multi-choice computer quiz, a surprising number of them select the Channel. If you can wait until next year to find out, plan a trip to SeaBritain 2005, when to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar will see an exhibition on the lives of Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a Tall Ships race featuring 3,000 young people in Newcastle, schools around the country involved in tree-planting ceremonies and an International Festival of the Sea. If you can't wait, I'll give you a clue...it's near Africa.

Is the identity of Watergate's Deep Throat about to be exposed? If he was really Fred LaRue , the man who delivered payments to guarantee the silence of the break-in's participant, it might be. LaRue was a special assistant to John Mitchell, the former attorney general who headed CREEP, the Campaign to Re-elect the President, in 1972.

On Monday, NASA is launching the Messenger mission to Mercury, the hot planet. "Not much bigger than Earth's moon," the Christian Science Monitor notes, "Mercury once was written off as a barren world too boring to bother with. Now, many researchers argue that Mercury holds the key to understanding the conditions from which the diverse range of inner planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago. And Mercury is expected to shed light on other star-hugging terrestrial planets that are expected to pop into view when a new generation of space-based telescopes is sent into orbit over the next 10 to 15 years.

"'A mission to Mercury is really a mission to the innermost part of the nebula out of which planets formed,' says Sean Solomon, director of the terrestrial magnetism department at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the mission's lead investigator."

Amma hugs all night. On Monday in Toronto, 5,800 people were each given a number to line up for a hug in a Mississauga hotel starting at about 10:15 p.m. Though it's not known how many stayed till the end, Amma definitely did. She continued until every last person who could stay awake had been enfolded in her arms. The last hug was at 6.45 am Some wept. Some laughed. Some clung to her as if she was love incarnate.

Her full name is Mata Amritanandamayi, which means mother of immortal bliss, but she is known as Amma, or mother, the hugging saint. She is 50, and the story of her childhood in an impoverished Indian seaside village in Kerala is the stuff of tragedy.

28 July 2004

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre - they're English and they're just about as eccentric as automata get. According to the Los Angeles Times, "You press a button to start the action: a tiny man sits at a table reading comics and every so often lifts a lid to see if his green banana has turned yellow yet. A toff on bended knee offers a mill girl a ring and her eyes bong out. In 'Cat Drinking Somebody Else's Milk', a cat slides his eyes from side to side as the level of the milk drops in the bowl."

The various groups trying to investigate the UN Oil-for-Food scandal are wrangling about access to evidence. The New York Times says "In addition to Mr. Volcker's panel, which is expected to issue an interim report in August, at least six Congressional panels, the Treasury Department, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating the program...Congressional investigators have concluded that Saddam Hussein skimmed about $10 billion from the oil profits, and there have been allegations of possible misdeeds by United Nations officials.

"Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, said he had met with Mr. Volcker to try to reach an agreement on sharing information, but he said Mr. Volcker was unwilling to do so until his own panel had finished reviewing the information. 'I argued that our inquiry would benefit his, because his panel does not have subpoena power,' Senator Ensign said. 'But they're completely unwilling to do that.'"

Newspaper columnist Jack Anderson, 81 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, quietly gave up his syndicated column last week, after more than half a century in the biz. His biographer, Mark Feldstein, writes of him today: "Part circus huckster, part guerrilla fighter, part righteous rogue, Anderson waged a one-man journalistic resistance when it was exceedingly unpopular to do so. That no one has emerged to take his place shows not only the void he leaves behind but also how much America's media landscape has changed."

There's more of Pompeii exposed than the authorities can afford to keep open to tourists, so they've devised a cunning strategy to keep up the pace of discovery, without expanding the site - they're digging down. What they're finding is fascinating - a non-Roman civilization thrived there for three centuries, with its own temples, houses, taverns, baths and saucy sexual practices.

According to the Washington Post, "subterranean Pompeii may not contain the luxurious villas and elegant sculptures found on the surface, but for archaeologists trained to perceive a universe in a clay shard, it is no less exciting. 'Pompeii is a city which, unluckily for it but fortunately for us, is best known for being destroyed. In everyone's mind, it is frozen at the moment of destruction, when it was a Roman city,' said Emmanuele Curti, the chief archaeologist on the latest dig. 'But Pompeii was a city long before that, and it's good to remind the world of that.'"

Peru is still struggling to bring to justice some of those involved in Alberto Fujimori's dictatorial government, including his bizarre arch-villain spymaster, Vladimiro Montesinos. As Peru's spy chief and Fujimori's right-hand man, according to the Los Angeles Times, "Montesinos created a vast network of corruption that reached into all sectors of Peru's public life. Months after the pair came to power in 1990, a U.S. military intelligence cable from Lima informed Washington of 'an extraordinary situation [in which] the intelligence service is in effect running the state.'

"The pair was brought down in 2000 when a videotape of Montesinos bribing a congressman was broadcast. By then, Peruvians had grown weary of their decade-long reign, in which they temporarily suspended the constitution, created secret tribunals to fight a violent insurgency and used their power to enrich themselves.

"The proceedings are a test of a judicial system utterly corrupted under Montesinos. Too slow and antiquated to tackle his octopus-like criminal organization, Peru's judicial code underwent the most sweeping reform in a century to bring him to trial. With the proceedings of 'Anti-Corruption Court A' and three other judicial benches entering their third year, the extent of Montesinos's control over all branches of government has been revealed in excruciating detail. All involved in the process believe that the future of Peruvian democracy is at stake.

"'The fate of the kleptocratic oligarchy is at play,' said Gustavo Gorriti, an investigative reporter who was among the first to write about Montesinos' backroom dealings. 'They are doing everything they can to bring down the current government.'"

The performance of the Defence Procurement Agency in 2002-2003 can only be described as woeful, the Defence Committee of the British Parliament said yesterday. "We are forced to conclude that our Armed Forces have been let down by the organisation tasked with equipping them" - the Ministry of Defence.

The MPs were scathing of the MoD's attempts to implement a system known as "smart acquisition" to save money and improve the procurement process, saying that only one of seven parts of the procedure had been put in place. They bluntly dismissed MoD claims that it had saved 2 billion pounds by introducing the system, saying that they had "no confidence in the reliability of this estimate." I guess that's a polite way of saying the MoD were lying about it.

In the eyes of much of the world, the long spasm of violence in the most recent Palestinian intifada was fueled solely by fury over occupation. But the bottomless well of rage also tapped years of grass-roots resentment over graft in the Authority, which in the eyes of its constituency had sapped, diverted, misspent and squirreled away fortunes; funds which could have helped meet the humanitarian needs of more than three million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is a Haaretz list of the most corrupt Palestinian officials, not including the gangster-in-chief, Yasser Arafat.

On the same subject, DEBKAfile has today listed some of the main points of a document published in Paris by Rafiq Natshe, once Palestinian legislative council speaker, for many years PLO ambassador in Saudi Arabia and a highly respected figure in the Palestinian community. In it, Natshe reveals some of the details of the corrupt practices of senior Palestinian officials, calling Arafat a liar, a cheat and a traitor.

He is the first senior Palestinian to accused the chairman of the Palestinian Authority of practicing terrorism. Arafat, he says, personally directs the al Aqsa Martyrs (Suicides) Brigades of Fatah, telling them what attacks to carry out. "With one hand," Natshe charges, "he funds the al Aqsa Brigades and, with the other, he sells them out." He also exposes what he calls the Egyptian Cement affair in some detail.

"Egypt," says DEBKAfile, "sold the Palestinian Authority large quantities of cement at low, subsidised prices for the purpose of building new dwellings for Palestinian families whose homes had been blown up or damaged in Israeli military operations. Instead, prime minister Ahmed Qureia and trade minister Maher Masri sold the cement to the Israeli firms building Israel's security barrier (while at the same time, the Palestinian Authority demanded that the UN General Assembly and World Court declare the barrier illegal - which they did!) The profit cleared by the pair is estimated by Natshe as ranging from $13 million to $22 million).

"Additional revelations in the Paris document:

"1. Ninety-seven percent of all donations made to the Palestinians came from Saudi royal princes. For some years, the infusion totaled $32 million a year. But then Riyadh whittled its donations down to the present $1.1 million in light of the discovery of how the putative aid was systematically embezzled by Arafat and his cronies.

"2. Arafat has recently transferred $11 million to his wife Suha in Paris.

"3. He consistently obstructs all attempts to scrutinize Palestinian Authority finances and audit its accounts which are kept tightly under his exclusive control.

"4. Every member of the PLO embassy staff in Riyadh dipped into Saudi aid funds that were dedicated to the families of fallen Palestinians. Some simply pocketed the money; others, slightly less brazen, diverted it to bank accounts and drew only the interest, not the capital."

Arab states at the United Nations are trying to foil a proposal to raise a vote condemning anti-Semitism in the General Assembly this September, according to Haaretz. At a closed meeting held recently in New York, UN ambassadors from Arab and EU countries met and the Arabs made clear that they will not accept the UN General Assembly condemning anti-Semitism. It's not the first time they've played this game, but it does underline two things - first, their own anti-Semitism, and second, how easy it is for them to manipulate the UN into a position of acting from bias.

27 July 2004

Michael Frith, the Bermudian who created the Muppets, has been working on a new project. Some time before Christmas, security permitting, he and his wife will hand over a new puppet show they have created, to be performed by a specially trained company of actors and storytellers in troubled Afghanistan.

The Belfast Telegraph has the details: "Michael Frith is the man who invented Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie Bear. He's an eloquent, surprisingly intellectual figure with a white beard and a particular way of saying 'wonderful'. Not exactly a Prospero, but his family have lived on Bermuda - the island that may have inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest - since the 17th century.

"He met and fell in love with the puppeteer Kathy Mullen 25 years ago while working on The Muppet Show. They are now of retirement age. Their apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has a scattering of Frith's original sketches of Muppet scenes on its walls, and here and there a pile of Beaker puppets, but the Muppets have been sold to Disney and the chirpy days of creative mayhem in London are long over.

"Kathy and Michael are now focused on a remarkable new project in Afghanistan..."The actors will travel the length and breadth of an immense country where there are 10 million land mines, and where children live in constant danger of being injured or killed by the legacy of decades of conflict."

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has denounced US President George W. Bush's charges that the Cuban government encourages sex tourism and is involved in human trafficking. Addressing the nation on the 51st anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Castro said the accusations were aimed at justifying steps taken by the Bush administration last month to undermine Cuba's economy and to restrict visits and cash remittances from Cubans in the United States. Maybe they were...but that doesn't make them any the less accurate.

I'm posting this not because I agree with it, but because Howell Raines, the former editor of the New York Times, wrote it. It is an analysis of the swing of the pendulum towards the right in the United States in recent years. "Class warfare," he says, "has not been so intense in the United States since the days of the robber barons. But so far only one class is fighting, and the ever-widening income gap in America shows who has been winning. At the Democratic convention, there'll be a lot to watch for by way of a predictor of the November election. One I'll have my eye on is whether Kerry-Edwards seem to have a plan for freeing the political prisoners of George W. Bush's brand of cultural populism."

He sounds like nothing quite so much as a Wobbly from a century ago - one of the guys who was in the audience when "Big Bill" Haywood hammered on the table for silence with a piece of board and said "Fellow Workers. This is the Continental Congress of the Working Class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement in possession of the economic powers, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution without regard to capitalist masters."

This perceptive editorial should be required reading for every politician and Government official in the world, not just for those involved in the British parliamentary system. Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin knew Gordon Brown was cooking the books when he announced that labour would cut the civil service by 100,000 jobs, but he didn't say so until two weeks later.

The newspaper gets it absolutely spot on when it says "Mr Letwin should have been equipped to decode Mr Brown's figures in time to influence the media coverage that day, while the British public was still paying attention. There is simply no comparison in political impact between a magisterial reply at the Dispatch Box as soon as one's counterpart has sat down, and a speech delivered elsewhere a fortnight later. Rightly or wrongly, the British parliamentary system sets great store by the ability to respond immediately." So does every other democratic system, of course.

I guess this story in the Telegraph, about a festival to celebrate Peterborough's multiculturalism that ended with rival ethnic groups involved in running street battles, illustrates just how thin is the line that divides comedy and tragedy.

Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, says Michael Moore got a Palme d'Or at Cannes for the kind of work that got Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Jack Kelly fired from their newspapers. "When 9/11 Commission Chairman Kean has to take a minute at a press conference, as he did last Thursday, to knock down a proven falsehood like the secret flights of the bin Laden family, you wonder if those who urge people to see Moore's film are informing or contaminating the debate.

"I see more McCarthy than Murrow in the work of Michael Moore. No matter how hot a blowtorch burns, it doesn't shed much light."

Talk about poetic justice! Merhan Karimi Nasseri is the man on whom Steven Spielberg's latest film, The Terminal, was based. He has lived for the past 16 years at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. He's been invited to the Paris premiere of the film, but he's not sure he's going to go, because he worries that if he abandons the corner of the airport where he lives for long enough to travel into the capital for the ceremony, airport security will blow up his belongings. But he does have the consolation of around $300,000, which was recently paid by Spielberg's Dreamworks production company into the account he holds in the airport post office, a few steps away from the red plastic bench which has served as his home since 1988. And there's more to come if the film is a success.

Nasseri calls himself Sir Alfred Merhan. Probably born in 1945 in Iran, he was educated at Bradford University in Britain, and participated in protests against the shah in the 1970s, which led to his expulsion from Iran when he returned in 1976. Britain refused him political asylum. He was imprisoned in Belgium for four months in 1988 as an illegal immigrant after his refugee papers were stolen, before being taken to the Paris airport for expulsion to Iran. Fearing possible persecution, he declared himself stateless, and has remained in the terminal ever since.

Seventy-one million pounds to improve the sound at Festival Hall? Wouldn't it be cheaper to tear the place down and start over? It may just be me...I'll admit I'm still trying to get over the disappearance of the 15-cent glass of beer.

In 1972, a jittery analyst wondered if one particularly enigmatic blob might be the decomposing body of a giant alien from outer space. Last summer, a gelatinous blob as long as a school bus washed up in Chile. While experts oohed and aahed over what appeared to be fragments of its huge tentacles, the Internet buzzed over news of the monster and the BBC pronounced it perhaps the remains of a lost species of giant octopus. Other experts suggested it was a giant squid or perhaps an entirely new kind of sea creature unknown to science. Similar blobs of flesh appear in coastal areas all around the world. Several have been found in Bermuda. But now a team of six biologists at the University of South Florida has applied DNA analysis to the blobs and solved the mystery. The answer is all too mundane: they're actually chunks of old whale blubber.

26 July 2004

Each time Yasser Arafat stirs up turmoil in the Middle East, the Washington Times says, his "hold on his people grows weaker. That may be the only ray of hope in all this murk. This time the old terrorist had to back away when he appointed a relative head of the ineffectual police of his sordid little pseudo-state. One day his zigs and zags may not work any more, and the mob he so often turned on others may turn on him. But then, as longtime Middle East watchers well know, he could be succeeded by someone even worse. Or, worst of all, by no one at all, a k a Abu Chaos."

Meantime, in other Middle East comment, DEBKAfile suggests that the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hizballah has twice been jolted out of its complacency this month. It has been forced to accept that its innermost core has been penetrated and that its eight-year old links with Palestinian terrorists have been laid bare.

"Word reaching Israel's intelligence sources is that Hizballah's Iranian masters and Syrian backers are now looking forward to the next stage of their terrorist assault on the Jewish state, the use of non-conventional weapons."

Russia and Iraq have reached an agreement to scrutinise commercial deals signed while deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was in power, according to South Africa's News24.com.

European Union (EU) foreign ministers met earlier today to work out their negotiating positions at crunch World Trade Organisation talks which open in Geneva this week. Although France does not want to give more ground over farm subsidies, at least one foreign minister, Ben Bot of the Netherlands, thinks that agreement will be reached. "I think we will get a good mandate for the Commission and we have see to it that all member states of course are on the same line," said, referring to the European Commission which will represent the EU in Geneva.

New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker has an almost childishly simplistic take on the reasons the Cancun round of talks failed - she says the African nations walked out, "saying that the rich countries had little interest in making life fairer for the world's poorest farmers." That makes a tidy little story if you're a fan of the 'big+wealthy=evil, small+poor=good' line, but it actually bears very little resemblance to reality. See my article, The WTO Failure, for details.

"The grandly titled Global Earth Observation System of Systems, which boasts nearly 50 countries as participants, is an ambitious attempt by governments, scientists and industry to launch a network that will continuously monitor the land, sea and air," according to the Washington Post.

"If it meets expectations," the newspaper says, "it could transform the way farmers plant their crops, sailors plot their voyages and doctors work to prevent the spread of disease in remote regions. For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it."

I remember thinking, when I read about vehicles and equipment belonging to the British Special Boat Service having been seized by Iraqi forces during the invasion last year, that there was going to be more to that story. The Telegraph says criticism of its performance in Iraq is to lead to substantial restructuring of the organisation, and better training to improve its fighting skills and abilities at operating behind enemy lines. While the SBS is expert at operations at sea or close to the shore, there have been mutterings that it runs into problems in land patrols.

"Jasper Johns does not particularly like talking about his art. He's aware that by explaining what he means, he risks limiting the meanings that can be derived from it by others. "I don't think it matters what it evokes as long as it keeps your eyes and mind busy," says Johns of art in general. "You'll come up with your own use for it. And at different times you'll come up with different uses."

His claim to the title of World's Greatest Living Artist is buttressed by his amazing wealth - one piece alone went for 12 million pounds - and the iconic status of Flag, one of his earliest works, an equivalent in American college bedrooms to the place occupied in British ones by Matisse's Blue Nude. When he emerged on the art scene in the late 1950s, Johns' tightly controlled studies of everyday objects, his sculptures of coffee tins and ale cans, were read as a rebuke to Jackson Pollock and the abstract impressionists and he has since been called the father of pop art. He haughtily rejects both notions.

The Plain English Campaign today celebrates the anniversary of a mission as vital, unglamorous and unending as sewage disposal, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper. "For a quarter of a century, it has been struggling to cleanse the muck of jargon and circumlocution from British official writing." To mark the occasion, the Campaign has chosen absolutely the worst examples of crappy official writing they've seen during their quarter century of work.

The winner? Well, it's the Government. It's always the Government, because no matter where in the world you are, nobody can screw language up like a bureaucrat trying to sound important: "The hours of non-hours work worked by a worker in a pay reference period shall be the total of the number of hours spent by him during the pay reference period in carrying out the duties required of him under his contract to do non-hours work."

A new rule in Mexico's pro soccer league - tightening the definition of who is a Mexican - takes nationalism to new heights over there, and echoes a perennial controversy in Bermuda. Starting next month, when the new season begins, naturalized Mexicans will be considered foreigners under the rule. Here, the argument that "paper Bermudians" should have fewer rights than born Bermudians has been going on for generations. Bermuda's Constitution and law, to say nothing of common sense, sees no difference between the two, and I've never heard anyone seriously suggest that that ought to be changed. That doesn't stop people from making a lot of noise about it, though. One newspaper columnist recently suggested that if there is to be a referendum on Bermuda's independence, only people who were born here should be allowed to vote.

CBS's veteran journalist Tom Fenton recently had this to say about the work of his media colleagues: "You know the old saying: No news is good news. But in the news business, it is just the opposite: Good news is no news--which is why you have been hearing so little from Afghanistan recently."

Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff follows up his 'good news from Iraq' piece of a few days ago with a similar article about Afghanistan in the Wall Street Journal.

25 July 2004

This has been a stupendous year for stupidity, according to Albert Nerenberg, of the Main Organization Revealing Obvious Numbskulls (get it?), which runs the World Stupidity Awards. No prize for guessing that George Bush was a big winner - what self-respecting funnyman could buck that bronco of a trend? The awards were held in Montreal on Friday night. Stupidest Woman of the Year was U.S. soldier Pte. Lynndie England, who became notorious after pictures were published of her allegedly abusing Arab prisoners in a Baghdad military prison. Presenter Maggie Cassella said England beat out convicted homemaking guru Martha Stewart, dysfunctional rocker Courtney Love, Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson who "finally had enough surgery to place himself in this category."

Goodness me. Palestinian businessmen making millions by selling cheap cement to help build the barrier in Israel? Surely there must be some mistake...

Britain is forming a new special forces unit to fight terrorists. The Reconnaissance and Surveillance Regiment will work closely with the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service. Its mission will be to penetrate groups, either directly or by "turning" terrorists into double agents. It will be given the authority to operate around the world, working closely with friendly intelligence agencies such as the CIA and Mossad.

Security chiefs, says the Telegraph, which broke the story, hope that the regiment, comprising up to 600 troops, "will run a network of agents providing the West with accurate intelligence on potential terrorist operations, allowing attacks to be foiled. It will at first be formed from members of a highly secret surveillance agency - the Joint Communications Unit Northern Ireland - which has worked in Ulster for more than 20 years. The unit, which worked with the SAS, MI5 and the Special Branch, perfected the art of covert surveillance in urban and rural areas and created a network of double agents who supplied the British security forces with intelligence on terrorist attacks."

This has to be the best news of the last ten years - British scientists have found a way to mass-produce frequency-selective 'wallpaper' screens on a large scale for the first time. The screens are metal grids designed in an intricate pattern which can filter out some radio signals and allow others through, depending on their wavelength. They can be fitted to walls and covered with real wallpaper so they disappear from view. The practical application of this new technology is to stop people's accursed cell phones going off in the middle of...whatever.

And if that isn't enough for you, Kleenex has found a way, not to cure the common cold, but to kill its little helpers.

The Story of O, by "Pauline Reage", was published in France 50 years ago. It wasn't until 10 years ago that an English journalist established that the author was really an impeccably dressed 86-year-old intellectual called Dominique Aury, who acknowledged to him that the fantasies of castles, masks and debauchery were hers. Geraldine Bedell writes in the Observer this weekend that "Fifty years on, Story of O remains a powerful text, no longer as shocking as it once was, and no longer causing incredulity that it was written by a woman, but still able to touch people viscerally...Peter Fryer, who wrote a book on the British Museum's collection of erotica, described it as a 'daydream transfigured by literary skill, notably by obsessive detail, Henry James's solidity of specification'. (Aury researched 18th-century costume and the book is studded with descriptions of interiors, dress, the appearance of things.)

"But beyond its merits as a literary work, its merits or limits as pornography, there lies the paradox that this incendiary book was written by a woman who wore little make-up and no jewellery, who dressed with quiet elegance, who lived out a polite, bluestocking existence in a small flat with her parents and son. Beneath this unlikely exterior raged terrible passions. In the end, the most instructive aspect of the book is that it demonstrates the demoniac nature of sexuality in any or all of us. This quiet, learned woman understood the power of sex. She knew that desire can ignite compulsions to commit sudden, arbitrary violence and induce a yearning for voluptuous, annihilating death."


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

Article Archive

2003 Index


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